Putin’s Risky Options in Ukraine

EXPERT TESTING – It remains highly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will use military force in the coming weeks. He will not get full diplomatic concessions from the United States and NATO. He cannot keep his massive army mobilized indefinitely in the middle of winter, and he may want to seize the moment when the West looks weak and divided in the wake of the Afghanistan disaster. And with an energy crisis in Europe, Putin can calculate that Europe’s appetite for harsh sanctions on Moscow will lessen as the impact on gas supplies becomes more difficult. should be clear.

The Russian President’s primary goal seems to be to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s sphere of influence or, otherwise, reduce its viability as a threat to Russia.

Putin’s dream pick would be a change from the recent events of Kazakhstan. Local disturbances in Kiev will lead to “patriotic forces” asking for Russian support. In the absence of the Tokayev figure, the Russians would have to convince someone high-ranking in Kiev to make the request; a union leader, financier or even a cabinet minister. That must not exceed the arrangement capacity of the local GRU Resident and SVR. In his dream, Putin’s army would then march into peace with the CSTO title of “peacekeepers”. In fact, he must have known they would have to fight to get in.

North Choice

Thanks to “joint exercises” with Belarus, Russia now has forces just 240 miles north of Kiev. This provides the option of a quick run to the Ukrainian capital to remove the Zelensky government and install a pro-Kremlin candidate. Such an operation would be reminiscent of the successful Christmas invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when Soviet troops captured Kabul within three days and appointed Babrak Kamal as president. The campaign involved 25,000 troops and 280 transport planes and went like clockwork.

Such a trip to Kiev is possible. Most of Ukraine’s hardline troops are deployed in the east of the country. The Russians will soon establish complete dominance in the air. However, Kiev is not Kabul. It’s a big modern city and Ukrainians can fight for it one by one. The Zelensky government is less popular than it used to be, but it is not likely to collapse. Even if a puppet mode can be installed, what then?

Russia was able to pacify much of the eastern Dnieper, but in Kiev itself and to the west, popular resistance is more likely. Ukraine could be split in half, and any short-term Russian success could turn into a long-term nightmare.

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Putin’s Lesser Options

There are many less options along Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia can easily carry out invasions to capture more territories. One possibility is the industrial city of Kharkiv. The problem is that the returns will be too small for all the political risk Putin has taken in recent weeks. It will not fundamentally change Ukraine’s economic or political capabilities as a country and could actually increase its resolve to join the European Union and NATO.

However, the capture of Odessa could be a game changer. It is Ukraine’s third largest city with a population of over one million and includes an important seaport. This port handles the majority of Ukraine’s maritime cargo and is the headquarters of the Ukrainian navy. Most of the population speaks Russian. However, this will be a land operation requiring the use of forces concentrated in Rostov-on-Don and in Crimea, and the use of air, naval and amphibious forces.

Rostov-on-Don to Odessa is 500 miles. It may take a few days of fighting and is not without risk but once Russia has established air superiority that should be manageable. Just a hundred miles beyond Odessa would provide Russia with a land route to Moldova, which Putin also considers part of his sphere of influence.

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The loss of ports in the Sea of ​​Azov and the Black Sea would be a major blow to Ukraine and would greatly affect the viability of a country already struggling economically. It would have the added benefit of providing Russia with a second overland route to Crimea and a far more important route than the bridge over the Kerch Strait, completed in 2019, five years after the annexation of Crimea. . But the long stretch of occupied territory from Rostov to Moldova will not be easy to defend from future Ukrainian counterattacks.

Putin’s Political Risky Choices

In the end, Putin has two more politically risky options as they would directly challenge NATO members’ territory and in the former case could lead to the killing of NATO troops. One is to capture the Suwalki Gap between Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This means annexing a small part of Poland or Lithuania. What remains will be carving a town from one of the three Baltic states. The obvious candidate would be Narva in Estonia, which has a Russian-speaking majority. In Western thinking, this would be needlessly provocative, but Putin may be drawn to it for that very reason. It will also test whether the West is really willing to fight for a small piece of territory belonging to one of its members. And Putin wouldn’t want to give up his military without some tangible benefit.

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